Rocket Bomber - bookselling Retail Platform: First Thoughts

filed under , 30 March 2015, 12:45 by

The Pitch:

[see it yourself]

“Make a store with our 2MM books, DVDs, graphic novels, and more.”
“Sell products your audience will love at any point of interest or engagement.”
“’s Native Retail puts products you select on your site and into your social streams, both desktop & mobile.”

The Product: is a retail effort from Aerbook, and if you pop on over to the Aerbook side of their site, you’ll see options for authors and creators to upload and sell their own epub or PDF files.

Aerbook has been around since 2010, and while the platform is ‘new’, this has been in the works for at least two years

4 September 2012 : PBS Media Shift : Aerbook Maker, Kwik Help E-Books Come Alive with Multimedia
January 2014 : Book Business Magazine : Aerbook Ebook Platform Introduces Publishers to Native Retail
14 March 2014 : Publisher’s Weekly : Aerbook Turns Social Media Into a Virtual Bookstore

“Over the years since I’ve been writing for PBS MediaShift I’ve looked to Aerbook founder Ron Martinez’s innovations for a peek into the future of publishing. I’m happy to report that his products have finally landed in the present, for everyone, not just the tech-adventurous. Aerbook began as a fixed-layout multimedia e-book creation tool with Aerbook Maker. Martinez then added the capability for authors to create social fliers that allow authors to send news of their book down the social stream where readers can sample and buy books directly from Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. The new product (in beta) perfects this strategy and takes it to the next level to allow anyone to build a bookstore on your own website for fun and profit. With this ability to so easily build a bookstore I expect that many tech-savvy authors will create niche sites in order to promote their own titles.”
How Self-Publishing Services Blossomed in 2014, Carla King, Publisher’s Weekly, 31 December 2014

11 December 2014 : Ink, Bits, & Pixels [formerly The Digital Reader] : Gumroad Goes Where Aerbook Already Treads
19 January 2015 : Publishing Perspectives : from Aerbook Lets You Curate Your Own Online Bookstore
12 February 2015 : press release : Morgan James to Preview and Directly Sell Print and e-Books on the Mobile, Social Web, and Enable Sales by Retail Network
15 January 2015 : Publisher’s Weekly : S&S and Harper Grow Direct-to-Consumer Programs, “HarperCollins introduced a pilot program with e-book previews, and purchasing options, to social media users via Aerbook.”
26 January 2015 : Futurebook : ‘You are the destination’: Aerbook’s ‘native commerce’ for publishing

So What Is It?

For the customers purchasing books, offers fulfillment via Ingram (for paper) and direct downloads for e-books — their FAQ for ebook purchasers points consumers to the Bluefire Reader (if they don’t already have a way to open the epub file) with additional instructions for Kindle & iBooks users.

[aside: files are amazingly agnostic; the Apple/Amazon trick is to fool you into staying within their respective platforms]

The actual purchase screen is simple and sparse (ready-made for mobile and smaller screens on phone and tablet) and rather straightforward. From a customer’s perspective, well, it’s not Amazon — but this is certainly on par with direct sales at nearly any other web site I’ve seen.

On the aspiring internet retailer side, offers an web-based interface to easily add books, and even provides you with your own store on their site: mine looks like this –

The store is embeddable, so you can easily add this to your blog (say, under a “store” tab or menu item) or — if you happen to have a subdomain available — you can drop a frame directly onto your own URL. Something like

Buy Now

Sales cards for books are also embeddable, and from the back-of-store side of your sales site, you can build widgets for individual titles. The embed code is probably optimized for something like Wordpress; as we can see to our right, if you drop it into some oddball CMS like the one running RocketBomber, we get wonky results that I’ll have to go in and correct manually.

Who is it for? makes it trivial to set up your own store. Really, it took me 15 minutes. 15 minutes — from not even having a sign-in and password to having a Aerbook store URL and 500 or so titles ready to purchase.

What won’t provide are any customers.

If you have a book review site, or fan culture blog or podcast, or a news aggregation site with decent traffic, an book store could be a great feature to add — maybe pitched as a service (“hey, here are the books we mentioned in the show this week”), maybe as a revenue source (I wouldn’t bank on it), or just to have.

If you were a creator, author, or comicker and wanted to sell your own stuff, then you could certainly make use of Aerbooks to do so — in fact, that was part of the functionality before the platform. Now you can also add other items (DVDs, for example) and maybe make a few bucks. The appeal for an author might be the speed with which a store can be set up — even if all you plan to sell is your own book.

When you add books to your store ‘inventory’, you also get to select the discount — though you can only cut so deep. If you attempt to go below the ‘minimum’ price (presumably, Ingram’s price on the physical book, or the publisher’s maximum discounted price, whichever applies) then the store will automatically revert to that minimum. Discounting books also cuts into your margin (hey, just like ‘real’ retail) so if you were looking to to make money, you won’t be able to cut too deep…

Buy Now

However, you can also apply a ‘negative discount’ — you set the price, so if you want to you can charge more. The example to our right, Midnight Madness (the worst movie I could think of, spur-of-the-moment) is currently marked up 100% in my little web store, because I don’t want you to buy it. If the goal of your web-shop is not to undercut Amazon, but instead to raise funds (say, for charity) then that functionality is built in too.

“Make a one-time donation of $50, and in addition to helping RocketBomber you’ll get a copy of this great book, too! Our fulfillment partner will take care of shipping, and charging your card, so all you have to do is click this link! Thanks for helping out!”

The Highlights:

The user interface is intuitive and (at least with the numbers using it in this beta) moves fast. I was able to plug in a few of my favorite publishers (Viz, Vertical, Yen Press, Dark Horse, Seven Seas, DMP — and yes, all those were in there) and the search quickly pulled up more manga than I expected. The boast of 2 Million titles quickly proves itself. Each individual product page has the social media buttons baked in — Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest — making sharing a two-click affair, for you or for any of your followers/readers who’d care to help.

Searches by title/author are perhaps the best way to find books to add; by title particularly for numbered series, by author for nearly anything else. Collections of books are also available (called ‘playlists’ by — perhaps an artifact of some other application of this software) and you can either select some that are ready-made, or roll your own. Adding titles to a playlist is a little slower, as each title must be added individually, as opposed to the ‘select all’, ‘add selections’ options I gladly used when building the store.

There is also an ‘import your books from GoodReads’ option — with the ability to only include those you rated at 3, 4, and/or 5 stars. If you’ve already invested a chunk of time building your virtual bookshelves there, you can quickly flip that into a virtual book store.

Payments are handled by Stripe, as are pay-outs (assuming I ever get to that point) but there’s no need to fill out any of those forms to set up your login and store front. (only when, and if, you want to cash out your commissions. there’s a $10 minimum on payments)

[more on Stripe Marketplace – 5 June 2013 : Techcrunch : Stripe Makes It Easier For Marketplaces To Collect And Distribute Payments To Multiple Accounts]

As stated, it’s easy to get up and running. For a web admin or author looking to add just a few items with buy links to a sidebar, or a quick-and-dirty shop add-on, this will take a single afternoon.

The Drawbacks: (call it, ‘room for improvements’)

[And note: this is the beta version so of course any complaints should be seen in that light]

A larger shop will take time to build, and getting the frames/embeds to actually look good on your website/CMS across multiple browsers might take you several hours, depending on your particular platform and your familiarity with HTML/CSS and whatever scripting you’ll get into. It took me 40 minutes or so to drop a frame into The World’s Most Basic HTML File without the annoying double scroll bar, mostly because I don’t think I’ve ever used frames before. (It turns out, there is an easy solution but it will only work on modern browsers. No support for IE8. …that might actually be a feature)

Even with the seemingly huge selection of titles on, I still quickly found gaps. The Gundam series, for example: I was only able to find 4 of 10 volumes of Gundam: The Origin, and volume 1 is incorrectly listed as volume 10. This is a weakness on the part of Ingram, I’d bet – the site makes everything easier but still relies on the databases and item descriptions provided by their fulfillment partners.

Speaking of problems with databases, those 2 Million titles include the annoying straight-from-wikipedia print-on-demand books that clog a number of sites, including Amazon and B&N. I don’t suppose there is any way to exclude these — but the good news is that only you see them on the back end, when searching for inventory to add. These will not appear in your storefront unless you’ve specifically added them.

Only twice did I manage to make the interface ‘clunk’ — once because I managed to select a ‘custom field’ option that I don’t think was supposed to be visible, and again when I gave the search too much to chew on (I think) and then got impatient and tried to back out. Neither error was fatal, and easily fixed by going back to the right-hand menu and starting over.

Wrap-up: final thoughts. is not a complete product but what is currently available is pretty damn amazing. If I all I needed was a way to sell a handful of books (say, my own output as an author) then this would be an excellent alternative to affiliate links, Amazon widgets, or even more convoluted work-arounds.

It’s not a way for every aspiring Bezos to launch an online bookstore, though. What you can assemble (in an afternoon) is suitably impressive but the UI, UX, and purchasing experience won’t match a dedicated internet sales site. But I doubt it is supposed to, at this phase.

As Aerbooks put the polish on this platform, I think we’ll see even more value to users (and the users’ customers). My own wish would be for even more book and DVD titles (and perhaps other products?) but that’s because as a one-time corporate ‘big box’ bookseller, I’m used to sitting atop an inventory system that has twelve million listings, not just two. The ‘social media’ side of the pitch makes for good press releases, but the integration isn’t quite as seemless as is currently promised — don’t think this adds ‘one click’ shopping to your tweets. Clicking the social media buttons is certainly easy enough, though (at worst, you’ll have to copy and paste some html, the same that Amazon affiliate links require).

I plan to continue playing around with the store and the widgets, and testing the limits. Indeed, I may have to go back to writing up book reviews, just so I have a place to put the links. :) is still in beta, so I expect a lot of ‘fixes’ will be put in place before there are public sign-ups. The core functionality here (the idea of a quick, seamless online store that any blogger or creator can implement) holds a lot of promise, though. I’d ask Aerbooks to work hard on the supply side, making more books available (and getting publishers and distributors to fix the online listing info!) while keeping this particular back-of-store interface and feature set largely intact — I found nothing in the beta that was ‘broken’.

Test Post for an Bookstore

filed under , 29 March 2015, 13:48 by

I’m about 15 minutes into the process of setting up my own online bookstore, using the platform from Aerbook

If I’m doing this correctly, then somewhere below you should be seeing the cover for volume 1 of one of my all time favorite manga.

As promised (on twitter) I’ll be following up with a full write-up on the process, along with any impressions or opinions I form along the way. (I was just at a point where I kind-of immediately wanted to see if it worked)

Buy Now

A Secret History of the Paperback

filed under , 8 September 2014, 22:09 by

A Secret History of the Paperback:
and how not everything that happened to publishing since 1935 is going to repeat itself with ebooks.


I’m going to start with three pull-quotes from The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, Volume 2 [while published in 2003 — well before the current ebook thing, and certainly citing scholarship that is much older than just 2003 — I find this information very interesting given current debate.]

“Cheapness meant that a best-seller of the 1850s might sell fifty times the copies of one in the 1810s. Paper had constituted 50 to 66 percent of the cost of a book in 1800 but was only 7 percent by 1910, and leather covers were replaced by cheaper cloth. …
By the 1860s and again in the 1880s, proliferating titles and longer print runs had occasioned such competition among booksellers that many were squeezed out of business. Publishers complained that there was too much competition, too low prices, and too few outlets. Once again their response was price fixing.”

“The volume of book production increased substantially during the twentieth century despite the fact that for some commentators, particularly from the 1960s on, the advent and rapid development of new electronic technologies suggested that the demise of the book was imminent.”

“Following World War II, technological developments spurred book production. Photocomposition and offset printing enabled higher print runs (100,000 copies and more) than ever imagined, prompting what observers called the ‘paperback revolution.’ The paperback format was now used for light fiction as well as for the second edition of hardbound books. Their cheap price and ‘disposable’ quality encouraged book sales.”

Yes, I thought it important to include the dig about 19th century publisher price fixing — but also note it follows booksellers going out of business and book markets tightening. The larger point here is that paperbacks weren’t quite the price revolution portrayed by some; book prices had been falling for over a century.

I found this article buried in a ten-year old economics textbook by using a Google Books search — which is kind of off topic here but also illustrates how far we’ve come. Thanks to Google (and perhaps irritating to OUP) I can embed the search findings below.

[The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, Volume 2 isbn 0195105079 pub date 2003 edited by Joel Mokyr]

The paperback was not a sudden or seismic shift, or one that magically jumped into existence on 30 July 1935 — I’ll use the Penguin date because Amazon did * — and I’m not just talking about the ‘paperback’ formats that predated the ‘pocket books’ of Penguin and American competitor Pocket Books.

Decades of innovation preceded the mass-market paperback of the late 1930s — the first steam-powered presses emerged in the 1810s, to be replaced about 30 years lated by even faster rotary presses that replaced the piston-like flatbed press with a continuously operating rotating drum. On the pre-production side, Linotype machines significantly improved typesetting, starting in 1884, while parallel developments in lithography led to the introduction of offset printing (for paper) in 1904.

All these developments were driven not by the needs of book publishers but by the newspapers, which greedily adopted every technology that increased the speed and volume of print — and which lowered costs — in the drive to expand their business and reach. (Historic circulation numbers are hard to come by but we see newspapers doubling—at least—over the first half of the 19th century, and on toward hundreds of thousands for big city papers, as exemplified by the circulation battles between Pulitzer and Hearst.) The demands of newspapers drove the technology not only of the presses but also the paper — and anyone with a shelf-full of cheap, yellowing paperbacks knows the look and feel of newsprint-grade paper.

Cheap paper, fast presses, and perfect bindings (invented in 1895) combined in the 1930s to give us an affordable paperback.


There are three other magic ingredients to consider. First was volume: unit costs go down the more units you print, and Penguin stockpiled 200,000 books for their initial launch (20k copies each of ten titles) [source] — an unprecedented bet in an era when even a bestseller like Ernest Hemingway only got initial print runs of 10,000 hardcovers. The bet paid off, of course (and Penguin would actually sell 3 million books in its first year). Second, the newsstands (“news agents” to my Anglophone readers who don’t speak ‘murican) in train stations and on street corners everywhere represented a much larger sales channel than the small, and infrequent, bookstores of the era. (I don’t know why this is occasionally presented as a ‘hurdle’ the paperback publishers had to overcome, or a huge innovation; the newsstands were already selling cheap print—as fiction magazines—and had done so for decades).

And the final reason Penguin paperbacks were so cheap was the fact that paperbacks were reprints of books that had already been published by others. Of the first 10 titles Penguin chose, the original year of publication ranges from 1912 to 1929 — each at least five years old and highlighted by the inclusion of the debut novels of established authors Hemingway and Agatha Christie. Penguin didn’t have to invest in new manuscripts and herd authors along through a drawn-out editorial process, they just had to typeset the books and print ‘em off (with a kickback to the original author/publisher; how much you want to bet that—at least at first—the paperback rights went for a song).

The first work of original fiction to debut in paperback didn’t come along until 1950 — and around that time, hardcover publishers were claiming up to 50% of the royalties on paperbacks, squeezing on one side, while competition in a crowded market squeezed paperback publishers from the other. The switch to paperback originals was probably inevitable; it was friction from the ‘legacy’ publishers (of 1950) that prompted it.

[If you’d like to compare the 10-15 year gap between reprints and originals in the new format, I’ll note that Kindle Direct Publishing launched concurrently with the first Kindle device in 2007.]


Paperbacks were an advance, both in terms of accessibility (price points and physical availability) and visibility for books. The equivalent of the mall bookstore in this era was on the first floor of your downtown department store [sources: 1900, 1920, 1949] and so, were of course limited to places that had department stores, and downtowns — and in the late 30s, there were only 500 bookstores in the U.S., “which did not exist everywhere and more closely resembled antiquaries’ shoppes than the current megamarts” [source]. It’s not that Americans did not read, but the primary vehicle for fiction was the magazine (and I’ll also throw in full-page serial weekly comics in the newspapers as an aside) as well as the 3,500 public libraries. The paperback model that became mainstream in 1935 didn’t hide books in a dusty shop corner or behind a library circulation desk — the books (for the cost of a pack of smokes) were on a rack at the five-and-dime, and on the newsstand next to the magazines and newspapers people were already used to buying daily. And in America at least, the paperbacks quickly adopted the lurid covers that (for some) also defined the format.

I don’t know that I see the same benefit from ebooks. Yes, like paperbacks, the format is cheaper to produce (though that cost is not zero). Ebooks also get full marks for ‘accessibility’, considering you can just download one to your phone. Where ebooks do not quite match the true revolutionary potential of the paperback is in expanding the market. Paperbacks *blew up* the market for books — finding readers where they lived, and transitioning a pre-existing magazine fiction market to the new format, vastly expanding the profile (and sales) of genres like sci-fi, mystery, westerns, and romance.

What we’re missing in the ebook revolution is that “pre-existing magazine fiction market”, its half-century of material that fed into paperback racks, and the valuable experience a generation of authors had publishing there — a farm team, feeder system, or escalator (pick your metaphor) into pulp paperbacks for the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. We, and by ‘we’ I mean everyone, managed to largely kill off magazines in the decade before the Kindle launched. For ebooks to really impact the business in the same way paperbacks did, we’ll need to find (or invent) something like the magazine fiction market of the 30s and 40s, and find (or invent) ways to get book covers in front of eyeballs the way the spinner racks and magazine stands used to. (lurid optional; I really dig those pulp covers though)

Web sites are literally freakin’ amazing and book sales sites like Amazon are the brave new future of bookselling where nothing ever really goes out of print and any title is available — if you can find it. 10 million book listings is not only unprecedented but jaw-dropping when you stop to think about it. But (and you knew a ‘but’ was coming) Amazon doesn’t transform the reading audience like Penguin, Pocket, and Fawcett did. The people going to Amazon are already readers. Those who already buy books, and buy the most books, are the early adopters on the digital platform and the most vocal of its advocates. A web site is not going to put a book out there for discovery — or an impulse buy — in the same way that a Penguin paperback of 1935 did. In fact, web sites tend to bury books (really bury books when search algorithms and results are manipulated) in a way that’s different, even, from the bad luck of bottom-shelf placement in a corner in a 20,000sq.ft. bookstore.

Paperbacks moved books from an expensive luxury and lifestyle statement out to the places where people actually lived — a migration that began with train stations and street corners and eventually settled into the B.Dalton/Waldenbooks era of mall bookstores and from there to the late 1990s and early 2000s big box stores — in 2005 we reached a peak of roughly 1500 ‘book superstores’ run by the chains and that, honestly, is about as good as things will ever get (for physical books). Paperbacks, the revolutionary format of 1935, had been absorbed by publishers and the book trade (with mass-markets and trade paperbacks accounting for roughly 80% of books sold) and made bookstores better, arguably made book publishing better, and certainly made reading both more accessible and more popular over the decades, even with competition from television.

Ebooks threaten to reverse that, moving books from an everyday commodity back to a lifestyle statement and comparative luxury. Yes, an ebook may be cheaper at $9.99 (or $2.99, or 99¢, or even free) but to read an ebook, you need a smart phone, a tablet, a dedicated ereader, or a computer — and a credit or debit card. These appliances get cheaper all the time, but from 2007 right up to last year, we’re still talking about an investment of $100 or so. (Yes, please tell me about Amazon&iTunes gift cards and second-hand ereaders from ebay plus free phones on contract and all the other work-arounds — but admit that it’s all a bit more costly and complicated than a paperback for six pence or a quarter.)

Ebooks still have a long way to go, in my opinion, and I also have more than a few reservations and lingering questions about the format. I also think Amazon has a bit too much control over the new format, more than I personally am comfortable with. Additionally (and once again in my opinion) the *real* format shift was in 1993 with the new “printing press”, the World Wide Web. Ebooks feel like a step sideways, not forward, though any model that results in paychecks for authors can’t be all bad. Just like technological changes in printing that began in the 1840s eventually gave us the Penguin paperback of 1935, the massive shift in publishing that began in 1993 will eventually result in a similar revolution. (I just don’t think the 2007—or 2014—ebook is it. And even with the accelerated pace of technology today, compared to the 19th century, I don’t think 10 years is enough time yet to see exactly what that change will be.)

I’d also like to note I used Google Book Search to find five sources, ranging from public-domain sources as old as 1900 to the citation that started this article, from a textbook/encyclopedia from 2003 (more recent, yes, but equally unavailable in practical terms). That’s a power shift and democratization of information on par with the Carnegie libraries of 130 years ago; not every change in media is about formats.


* For those of you who like book trivia: German publisher Albatross beat Penguin to the ‘modern’ paperback by three years, though Albatros did not attempt the (then) massive print runs that Penguin did in ’35. However, I’ll note that Albatross innovated the trim-size and those iconic, color-coded covers (minimal, with typography and logo but no illustrations) now deeply associated with classic Penguin. How much ‘Penguin’ copied from ‘Albatross’ I’ll leave to your own judgement. I’ll also note that Tauchnitz Editions predate Penguin by nine decades — though the Tauchnitz books were never sold as paperbacks per se; the books were intended (by the publisher) and purchased as unbound books in a ‘wrapper’ with the understanding (at least until the 1930s, when Albatross snapped up Tauchnitz) that the editions would be rebound at purchaser’s cost by a local binder (turning them into hardcovers). Not all of the Tauchnitzs were, of course, though ironically this makes the paperbacks rarer and (potentially) more valuable than a leatherbound hardcover version of the same book.

Those interested in some of the primary sources I used should check out the Mental Floss article, How Paperbacks Transformed the Way Americans Read by Andrew Shaffer (which is linked above but you probably missed it) and A Short History of Paperbacks by Oliver Corlett [from the Independent Online Booksellers Association newsletter, The Standard vol.II no.3 December 2001, and archived online]. And if you’re still with me at this point, you should also read The Stigma of Paperback Originals, Joanne Kaufman, WSJ, 23 September 2010 and Soft Target: Have reports of the paperback’s death been greatly exaggerated?, Katie Arnold-Ratliff, Slate, 20 June 2013.

Most (but not all) of the Wikipedia links I used above on the paperback format: offset printing

And finally, this post was touched off a couple weeks back (hey, research takes time) by the, interesting, open letter Amazon published at

Links and Resources for Opening a Bookstore

filed under , 29 July 2014, 10:46 by

Links and Resources for Opening a Bookstore
And Some Heart-felt Editorial In Which I Hope To Dissuade You From Opening A Bookstore.

This longish, slightly-rant-y, rambling bit started out as a response to several recent articles on “Reinventing the Bookstore” (initial offender at the link, and other bloggers’ reactions linked at the end of this mess)

The issue I have with using “Design” (no matter how good) to solve the “Problem” of bookstores is that more often than not, the designer *has no clue about how bookstores are run*. You know, basics like inventory, coffee, and what makes books different from other retail to begin with. A Very Pretty Storefront (while nice) does not solve a serious price differential with Amazon, and just adding more “open, positive” space to an already too-small floorplan does not change the fact that booksellers have to stock from seven million unique SKUs and no matter what you choose to carry, customers can easily think of something you won’t have shelved. If one felt particularly gruesome, one might compare the effort of using “Design” to fix Bookstores to using “Fashion” to repair a Gaping Gunshot Wound to the Chest.

A Table of Contents:

This article is not intented to be a white paper or fully-comprehensive treatise on the topic, nor can one use it right out of the box as any kind of business plan. Obviously that would be beyond the scope of a blog post (at least on this blog), and if you are using the internet to just up-and-find a business plan: stop here. Don’t keep reading, don’t open a business of any sort, don’t shove paper clips into electrical outlets, and don’t shove anything up your nose. I mean, I shouldn’t have to tell you not to stick metal into an electrical outlet, but that’s the level of obvious I’m talking about here.

If you need business advice, go to the website and find a mentor. While you’re there, you can also read great articles like “Thinking About Starting a Business?” — and resources on business plans, financing, permits, taxes, licenses, business law and don’t ask in the comments on this post because I’m telling you right now there are better sources for this information.

Specific to the book business, you’ll want to check out the American Booksellers Association — and while you’re writing that business plan and building up your entrepreneurial chops, maybe you should also get a job working at a bookstore for a bit, just to see if it’s the kind of business you want to be in.

There are some things that *aren't* covered in business books and also not immediately obvious [a list of book vendors; using US Census data for market research; rough estimates, like knowing that 1000 linear feet of book shelving will fit on 1000sq.ft. of carpet; etc, etc.] and that is the scope of this blog post.


Want into the book business? Write some paranormal fantasy/romance (paranormal teen fantasy/romance would be even better), put it up on Kindle/Amazon, and Make Millions™* (* actual millions not guaranteed) – Congratulations, you’re now part of the ‘book business’.

Want to sell books, rather than write them? Open a web site, sign up as an Amazon affiliate and start blogging book reviews with Amazon links.

Is that not hands-on, physically-bookish enough for you? Start pulling together a used book collection and become an Amazon third-party seller. If you’re not picky, you could advertise on Craigslist that you’re buying books by the pound – and that you’ll drive out to pick them up. A surprising number of people are looking to offload physical books these days. You don’t even need a store front, though you may need to rent a storage unit.

There might be the minor detail of obtaining a local business license (and web hosting, and tax obligations) but there are options for getting into the book business without getting into the complicated mess of running a book store. Oh – and if my suggestions seem a little Amazon heavy? Deal with it. Learn to live with it. Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. This is our current reality, and no matter how loudly I bang the bars of our collective cage my fellow travellers assure me nothing is wrong with Amazon and we shouldn’t side with our old jailors because the new minimum security world of Amazon lock-in is so much more comfortable.

[To be fair, we’re not *locked* into Amazon in quite the same way that many Publishers’ contracts tie up books (rights are retained by authors, sellers can sell anywhere) but Amazon has the huge customer base — and the customers’ credit card info, and Prime, and One-click — so yeah: Amazon has the customers locked in and if we want access to those customers, we abide by Bezos’ Law and thank him for letting us live there, no matter how meagre the accomodation]

Amazon is all rainbows and unicorn farts and happiness straight from the carton. So I’ll stop talking about how great they are.


So, you want to open a bookstore? Go back four paragraphs, look into the online used bookstore model, and have fun.

…Oh, you wanted to open a neighborhood bookstore? Cute storefront, booklovers on the payroll, quirky selection – local hangout, community fixture, destination and landmark?


No really, please — for your sake, not mine — don’t go there.

Let’s start on the business side: [source, source]

  • 50% of small business fail in the first year. Yes, including yours. Yes, including bookstores.
  • Only 40% of small business are profitable, another 30% manage to break even. The remainder continually lose money.
  • Your overall odds of being a ‘success’, after five years, is only one-in-ten.

What are the major reasons small business fail?

  • Lack of experience
  • Insufficient capital (money)
  • Poor location
  • Poor inventory management
  • Over-investment in fixed assets
  • Poor credit arrangement management
  • Personal use of business funds
  • Unexpected growth

To the Small Business Administrations list, I’ll add: Underestimating the investment of time and effort required, and a failure to recognize the toll this will take on your relationships with friends and family. Even if you’re not hitting them up for money (excuse me, ‘investment’), you’re basically going to disappear for a while because your new business is about to become your everything.

If you just have to open up your own small business: maybe consider a restaurant, rather than retail. The capital required is lower, the demand steadier (we gotta eat, after all) and successful examples to follow are both more numerous and quite widely distributed. You’ll still have a 50% chance of failing your first year, but with a restaurant it’s more likely that you’ll be able to pick up and try again. Going the bookstore route, you may only have one shot.

Even compared to other retail, books are different. Book inventory by its nature is slow-moving, unruly, and byzantine in scope, scale, and complexity. From seven million to twenty million to 129 million books in print — estimates vary but all are huge — a basic fact of the industry is that tons of books already exist and hundreds of thousands more make it to market every year. No matter how complete your inventory or database, it will only be ~2.8 days before a customer comes in and asks for something you don’t have and can’t find. (The book itself may be out of print, may or may not exist, or may be a KDP Select E-only – in any case, an invisible book to bookstores.)

So if we take the absolute vastness of publishing and cross-reference that with reasons small business fail, “Poor Inventory Management” and “Over-investment in Fixed Assets” are huge warning flags that are also pretty much givens for booksellers. You can certainly come back and argue the point – you, smart cookie that you are, have already considered this and your book inventory will be carefully curated and appropriately niche. You have a strong concept, one easily communicated to the shopping public, and your book selection will be focused and will support the store concept.


90% of the books you stock still won’t sell.

Pick a category (for the purposes of this and other examples, I’ll take Romance for 500, Alex) – No matter how fine-grained and focused, you still have bestsellers and media-driven titles, and then, the long tail. Indeed, as much as people like to talk about “The Long Tail” as some sort of internet phenomenon, it’s actually math – and was described as early as 1906. The “long tail” is also fractal – if you look at a data subset (all punk tracks, rather than all MP3s; or romance, as opposed to all books) any small part of the whole still resembles the view from ten thousand feet. In a classic model, the 80-20 rule applies: 80% of your sales comes from just 20% of the stock. Books are worse – The gulf between the Rowlings and Pattersons and ‘the rest’ is broader, and there are fewer spots at the top.

There is a story [likely apocryphal] that dates back to the 1980s and the first round of major media consolidation, when publishers were snapped up by conglomerates who saw books (at the time) as a steady revenue stream and marquee property — I know, silly, right? After completing the buy-out, a group of accountants from the new corporate office would sit down with a group of editors from the old publisher and eventually, talk would come around to the elephant in the room:
Accountant: “Look, you’re publishing close to 1000 books a year, most of those aren’t going to make money, and even of the ones that do more than break even, really only 10 or so are going to be bestsellers.”
Publisher: [*nods*]
Accountant: “…So why don’t we pare back that list, only publish the 100 or so that we know will sell, and really throw some weight behind that top 10. Cut out the dead wood, concentrate on the blockbusters, and make some money here.”
Publisher: [*nods*]
Accountant: “I’m amazed you haven’t even considered this before. How many decades have you been in the book business, again?”
Publisher: “You make a valid point, I suppose — but tell me…”
Accountant: “Yes?”
Publisher: “Out of all these books, a thousand a year, do you know which ten are going to be the bestsellers?” [a question asked with an expertly arched eyebrow, I’m sure.]

The joke stops being funny when you consider what these huge corporate publishers started doing in the 80s: indeed, a lot of effort was put into so-called “known quantities” – advances for top-tier authors skyrocketed, while midlist authors saw their customary advances slowly shrink. Publishers began to acquire fewer books; authors had one shot (or at best, two) to make an impact with readers — if they didn’t sell (or didn’t sell ‘enough’) they’d be dropped by their first publisher and hard pressed to find a second.

That’s just on the production side — booksellers face the same problem, but multipled across the catalogs of every publisher. As a small business owner and book retailer you have to accept this and steel yourself to the reality: You are going to stock books that never sell.

“Why bother, then: Why not just stock the bestsellers?”
Excellent question.

Costco and Walmart do that, and they can discount books lower than you can. Barnes & Noble, for as long as it is in this game, is going to have the bestsellers in stock, in quantity, and at a sale price that just about eats your entire margin. Amazon will always have the bestsellers, and no way in hell can you match the Bezos cut. As an independent bookseller, you can’t play this game. You’ll lose. The bulk of your business is going to be in the Long Tail, the 90% of books you stock that you know you aren’t going to sell.

Does this sound like a paradox, or Catch 22? It should.


If you’re bound and determined to open up a bookshop, even after my warnings, track back a half step and ask yourself why.

Do you like the atmosphere of bookstores? The hard-to-describe bookish-ness of them? Do you want to build a “third place”, to become a hub for social events in your community? Is your primary goal selling stuff — or literacy and letters, plus the coffee and conversation, oh and the occasionally book signing on the side?

News Flash: one can host author signings just about anywhere. Some events do better at a library, pub, coffee shop, or ‘offbeat’ venue, as opposed to the now-bog-standard-and-boring Big Box Bookstore. Even if your goal is selling books, maybe the platform you need is not the local-restroom-reading-library-and-nap-complex, but a retail front that is anything else first and only a ‘bookstore’ second.

[see: 5 Brilliant Bookstore-Bars : Aram Mrjoiam, 2 July 2014, Book Riot]

It takes a surprisingly small footprint to turn a pub or coffee shop into a ‘bookstore’ (sometimes, a single bookcase). Indeed, we can go back five paragraphs, and stock ‘just the bestsellers’ – plus a handful of other choice titles, dependent of course on theme and means. A bookshop-as-add-on is currently the best bookstore model I can recommend.

We can do it even cheaper, in fact: Set up a paperback exchange in your coffee shop – seed the shelves with your own paperback collection (if you can part with them) or buy up lots of them used (see: Craigslist ad mentioned above) and then sell them to customers for a dollar, or offer to trade them with customers two-to-one. So many book lovers are drowning in books, helping them get rid of a couple (plus, they get a new one to read!) is practically offering a community service. Concentrate on mass-market sized cheap paperbacks, spend $100 on a pair of bookcases and maybe another $100 on seed stock and the whole thing practically runs itself — and automatically turns your little gift shop, cafe, or corner store into a bookstore. For coffee shops and friendly pubs, books add to the atmosphere, too — a smart investment even if you never sell them.


“No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” -attributed to Yogi Berra

Why open up a bookstore in the 21st Century? Sure, back in the 1980s there was a definite lack (outside of the shopping mall) of bookstores, but the 1990s brought us not one but two major bookstore chains opening up these huge palaces full of books and coffee and man, that was great. Loved those places. I used to spend all day every Saturday at the bookstore.

“I used to spend all day every Saturday at the bookstore.”
“I used to spend…”
“…used to…”

The oldest Big-Box-Bookstores are barely over two decades old, and already many customers — many of us — talk about them in the past tense like they’ve all closed and the bookstore (like the physical format books they used to sell) are just memories and nostalgia. Borders closed due to over-expansion and mismanagement, but the actual facts of their bankruptcy are immaterial when stacked up against the public perception that all bookstores are going out of business.

The easiest way to combat this misperception is to open up a bookstore that’s not a bookstore — yes, open up a “Great Good Place” (please and thank you!) but flip your business plan around: be a coffee shop or neighborhood pub first, and a bookstore second — maybe host book groups and author events (and do some small, one-off sales of individual titles to support those) without being a ‘bookstore’ at all. If you have a place to sit and free wifi, you’re already filling the role that many currently demand of the bookstore anyway.

Once you’ve established your business, beaten the small-business odds to stay open past your first year (or five), and proven to yourself and others that you can make this work — then maybe you can look at expanding into books: adding bookcases, expanding your first location, or opening up a 2nd branch with even more of a book store focus. But I urge you to beat this level on the easy setting before trying again at harder difficulty.


If you really want to open a ‘bookstore’ Bookstore – you don’t have enough money.

To really compete against Amazon and other retailers, no matter the storefront or venue, I personally think you need to spend at least $10 Million on inventory — twice that would be better. The magic phrase is “Over One Million Titles In Stock” — and yes, you’re going to spend that $20M on books, be a national landmark destination, but the book-inventory-law still applies: 90% of those titles still won’t sell (…this year. Or maybe ever. But ten years from now when someone just has to have a copy of Prof. Halford’s Medieval Farming Techniques and the Evolution of European Plowshare and Moldboard Design (476-1349CE) and you *have* a copy — that’s where the magic is, folks.)

To give you an idea of how much one million titles in stock actually is, imagine about 12 Barnes & Nobles built side by side by side on 6 football fields. That’s not a perfect analogy; 30,000 or so books are common to all B&Ns [source pg. 9 B&N’s 10-K annual report filing with the SEC] and B&Ns can be pretty airy, but the number of bookshelves is about right.) Indeed, the retail ‘big box’ is the wrong model, floorplan, location—dare I say it, concept—for a bookstore — one million titles can actually fit on one city block and if I were to somehow come into possession of $20 Million and a ten acre site the end result would be much more of a book amusement park than a single bookstore. Also, one million titles is a ridiculous number — Amazon’s ‘working inventory’ is [25 million listings, out of which about 10 million titles are physical books (in English), and of those 10M we have to account for out-of-print titles stocked by third-party sellers… so…] likely only 2.5 to 3 million, so as you can see, it’s more like stocking a book distributor than a store — but I’ve maintained for years that if all the books are in the warehouse, hell, we should build a coffee shop in the warehouse and open it to the public. (“book amusement park”)

To be the equal of just the local Big-Box Barnes & Noble, you need at least $1 Million in inventory. And for this back-of-the-envelope calculation, I’m not even considering the money sunk in CDs, DVDs, Board Games, Toys, Gift items, and other assorted crap clogging up your local B&N: books only, 60,000-100,000 units, $1-2 Million Dollars.

A devilish-advocate could come back, “yes but – our store will concentrate on paperbacks, trade or otherwise, and our unit costs will be lower” and that’s fine — A used bookstore might manage to open with 50,000 books for only 50,000 dollars, or less! — but competing against the Big Box isn’t only a matter of dollars. So maybe you spend less than a million on inventory. Now we have to consider linear shelf-feet and square-footage. How big a space are you going to take on? What about the rent? How many books can you stock in your closet?

There are obviously smaller, and still successful, models to consider when opening a bookstore. The qualifier I started with was spending $10M+ “To really compete against Amazon and other retailers”. There are 2,022 members of the American Booksellers Association who offer obvious proof that I’m wrong. It is possible to open up small, friendly bookstores of all types, not just the genre-specific examples below but even general interest bookstores, in big cities and small towns, all across the country an in locations much smaller than your typical big box or warehouse store.

Here, have a few book-store concepts to get the skullgears moving: Books&BrewsLiving MemoryThe Reference DeskThe Last Picture ShowFleet Streetand five more, including The Coffee Table Book Store.

If you only have (or can scrounge) $50,000 – then you can open up a pizza place or burger joint. And you can do well. — But maybe Bookselling isn’t in the cards. (?) (with enough passion, a willingness to learn, a penchant for chatting up anyone who may know something about the book business that you don’t, miserly frugality, luck, and an improving economy: anything is possible. and hell, if you’ve been reading this article up to this point, you may also be an incurable case.)

As is true for any start-up/business:

  • know your market
  • listen to your customers
  • plan and control your inventory
  • market your business
  • keep it simple and focused

To stock fewer books and open on a smaller footprint is actually harder and takes expertise that you don’t have. [yet.]

  • To know a niche so well that you can only stock 15,000 or 1500 titles — and be able to sell them — means being a number-one-super-fan of that genre.
  • The tighter the focus, the smaller the selection, the easier your store will be to stock — and the harder it will be to find customers.
  • You can always offer to order books in, but this puts you in a different no-win situation: either the customers expect you to order at your risk, with no extra cost to them and even, no expectation that they need buy it once they have a chance to look it over – or your customers will say, “Why bother to order it here? I can just get it myself from Amazon.”
  • No matter how well you define and market yourself, even within your chosen genre and niche there will be books you never heard of: “Romance, huh? Do you carry Vampire romance? How about lyncanthropes? or time travelers — well I say time travel but I’m looking for something other than Scottish Highlanders, ya know? Ooo… or Steampunk romance. Or suspense – I love those romances with special agents and stake-outs and shoot-outs and chases…” [*whispers*] “…and, ah, you know those books? the fifty-five shady types?” – and just when you think you’ve stocked everything, Including the scorching romance featuring a Time-travelling Werewolf Royal Agent helping Queen Faerieana fight the Vampire Bondage Airship Pirates — a customer will still be able to blind-side you.
  • No matter how well you define and market yourself, by being a ‘bookstore’, you invite the public to treat you just like Amazon. “Hi, is this the We-Only-Sell-Romance Bookstore? Yeah, before I drive down there, I was wondering which lines of travel guides you carry? Oh, and textbooks – I need a textbook for this one class.” … “You’re a bookstore though, right? That’s how your listed… no need to be rude.” [*click*]

Unrealistic and unreasonable customer expectations are a relatively minor head-ache, of course. Any retailer deals with these, answering questions is routine, and handling a disappointed customer is a basic job skill.
The kicker, though, is that once you’ve failed a customer by not having a book in stock, you’ve reinforced the perception that book stores are ‘going out of business’ and the only real way to buy books is online, specifically from Amazon.

Can you run a small business? Can you run a retail business? On top of that, do you really know books well enough to run a retail book business? And can you raise the money to get started?


I’ve already written a fairly long piece on how to use Zip Codes and Census Data for market research — finding your customers and figuring out where they live. (There are also a couple of articles on my ‘Bookselling Resources‘ page that you may or may not find helpful in narrowing your search for a storefront, after you’ve determined your neighborhood.)


What’s our criteria for a retail location?

Well, I want to be where the people are, and since I’m opening a bookstore I want to be where smart people are (or at least pretentious people who spend money on books because they want to look smart, those are good too), and I’d like to be where the people with money live. Of course I’m speaking in broad generalities, but this information would be good to have, right?

If you want to know about people, ask the Census Bureau. (This is one of the best uses of taxpayer money ever.) Before we tap the CB, though, let’s start with the map:

Head on over to, and let’s plug in our target zip code (61605, Downtown Peoria) — if you don’t happen to know the zip code yet, well, just start clicking the map and scan around until you find your target, which is what I did last night. Zoom out a bit and look at the surrounding zip codes — you might want to start writing these down, actually.

Now, point your browser to and look up each zip code. Easy, right?
…OK, so it’s a mess, and you have no idea where to start. That’s fine, because someone at the Census Bureau has written directions on how to find exactly the information we need, by zip code. Gosh, they’re smart. (and I’ve a feeling someone—a lot of someones—have asked exactly this question before.) This will be a lot of clicking and writing and typing — and if you have the time it’d be 2-3 hours worth of work. And worth it, but still a pain in the ass.

Zip codes are handy because they’re used by a number of independent sources (like the Census Bureau), the post office originally set them up (and continues to maintain them, occasionally adding new ones) so that while not uniform in size or population they fall within manageable ranges for both, and most importantly, every address — and by extension, every real estate listing — has one.

The point I’d like to make is that you don’t have to go in blind: resources are available that will paint a pretty clear picture of where the potential readers are. These numbers will also be awfully nice to have when you walk into the bank, and start asking for money. Market research is a basic necessity for any business, and when you are talking retail, demographics (and real estate) are your market.

[/blockquote] — there’s quite a bit more on the process (including shortcuts) at the full write-up.

If you don’t want to read 2500 words about Peoria, here are the pertinent links to get you off and running:


“Oh look, there are still some shelves and fixtures here leftover from the last retailer who went out of business.”

You are going to spend a lot of money on shelves. Best to shop and scrounge second-hand, rather than buy new. You don’t just pop down to Ikea and load up on Billys and call it a day; for one, buying retail like that (even cheap Ikea stuff) (Billys in multiples aren’t really all that cheap, though) is going to get expensive fast, and what works in a living room likely won’t hold up in retail. That 50%-of-new-business-fail statistic can work in your favor, though — do web searches for going-out-of-business sales and check Craigslist for shelving (and just about anything, really) and of course a Google search for “used retail store fixtures” +[location] will bring up the local dealers who specialize in that sort of thing. (Google is the New Yellow Pages. For you kids out there, there used to be a book with listings by category put out by the phone company—there was only one phone company back then— …you know what? forget I mentioned it)

The fixtures, shelves, and seating for your store are an excellent way to demonstrate your creativity to customers, and communicate the mood or feeling you want your store to convey. That said: the smell of books (beloved as it is) will not always be able to counter the smell of old furniture, especially upholstry. Look for bare wood, and leather, and yes — no matter what it is, make sure it can pass a sniff test.

In a very real sense, the bookstore is nothing but the shelves. The total shelf space (linear shelf feet) determines not only how much inventory you have but how effectively you can sell it. Those beautiful, beautiful tumblr-ready images of bookcases packed top-to-bottom are great for looking at but not always the best way to stock books. Just having a book isn’t quite enough; you can’t sell it if folks can’t find it.

[source: partial Google Image Search results for used bookstore]

Figuring out how many books you can stock is a matter of algebra: # of Bookcases x # of Shelves x length of shelves, divided by the average width of your books (usually a half inch – can be more, mostly a bit less, depends on the genre, and mass-market paperbacks are smaller overall but tend to be thicker in this one dimension). Also, you’ll need to have a space (and ideally, also the shelves) squared away before you should order any books.

Bookcases can vary by height and width; for rough calculations I like to use these imaginary bookcases

1 foot by 3 feet at the base, five shelves, and after accounting for ADA compliance and room to walk around and shop them, you can figure on a minimum of 1000 linear feet of shelving for every 1000sq.ft. of designated retail floor space. You can usually pack shelves more densely vertically, or of course, buy or build them higher than just 5ft. tall.

(the remaining math I leave as an exercise for the student)


In lieu of a proper conclusion (this is a big subject; and my conclusion was in the second line “Some Heart-felt Editorial In Which I Hope To Dissuade You From Opening A Bookstore”) I now present a whole lot of links (see: blog post title, op. cit.).

Indeed, an argument can be made that I’ve been writing this same post for five years — so while I hope this is my last word on the subject, it likely won’t be.

What follows are links to other resources – notably publishers and distributors of books, and where possible, a direct link to a website or phone number for setting up new accounts. (After that are some more random, but hopefully helpful, links.)

There are hundreds of publishers, large and small, but the bulk of the trade is supplied by just a few Really Big Companies. In most cases, you don’t just order books from a vendor, you also apply for credit — books are supplied with payment terms in the range of 90 or so days, and you can get credit to apply toward book shipments in certain situations, usually after returning unsold books back to the publisher.

It can get complicated, and each publisher and distributor has their own terms.

Here’s a partial list to get you started:

Random House *
Penguin *
Simon & Schuster

W.W. Norton
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Baker & Taylor
National Book Network
Perseus *

(* RH and Penguin have merged, but operationally they still function seperately — that may change. Additionally, Hachette has announced a upcoming purchase of Perseus Books Group, which would involve a parallel sale of Perseus Distribution to Ingram. So that may change.)

And on top of individual suppliers, there is the PubEasy service (formerly Bowker’s, currently a division of Nielsen) which centralizes a lot of the ordering process, for those who choose to use it.
Current affiliates [as listed on the PubEasy site] include: Cambridge University Press (, Chicago Distribution Center (, Hachette Book Group (, HarperCollins (, McGraw-Hill Education (, MPS (, Oxford University Press (, Partners/West Books Distributing (, Penguin Group USA (, Random House (, SAGE (, Scholastic (, and Simon & Schuster (

Additionally, dozens of publisher catalogs (150+) can be viewed digitally using the Edelweiss web site, run by Above the Treeline — and that should be more than enough to help you plug any holes not covered by the Big Six and Ingram.

Magazines & Newsstand:
First, Read: After Losing Time Inc. Business, Distributor Is to Close Leslie Kaufman, 30 May 2014, New York Times — Source Interlink, one of the largest national distributors, couldn’t hack it in this business. So you might ask yourself, “Do I enter a failing market segment to lose money but still provide magazines as a sort of ‘customer service’?”

Ingram Periodicals
Diamond Comic Distributors
Links found on Google; I can’t speak to services offered, content mix, reliability, regional availability, customer service, ease of ordering, or fufillment (basically- magazines aren’t my thing) but: TNG (formerly The News Group), Curtis, Kable, and Comag

The only remaining advice I’ll give is, even if a book is returnable to the vendor, when ordering you really should pretend that they’re not. If you’re returning something because you couldn’t sell it, _maybe_ you shouldn’t have ordered it to begin with? Even if you get “100%” of the dollar value back in credit, you’ve spent money on payroll to process the book twice (once in, once out) and that book has been tying up your shelf space in the interim. By all means, order a single copy of anything that looks good — you can add it to the 90% of your stock that doesn’t sell and it becomes part of the store décor and ambiance (and you can try to actively hand sell it) — but before you order a case of a book, even a bestselling author, stop and ask first if you could get by with just a half-order, to start.


Customers, talking about book stores, rarely mention books first — it’s always about the smell of the bookstore. A fraction of that is the vanilla-like smell of books slowly decomposing on shelves, but the majority of that irresistible aroma is of course coffee. Plus, the margins on coffee are usually better than books.

An espresso machine, second hand, is going to cost between $2000 and $5000 – to say nothing of the plumbing, refrigeration, ice machine, blenders, and regular-old coffee makers you’ll need to get a coffee shop up and running. It’s back to Google (“restaurant supply new and used”) to find your local sources and options there.

Additionally, I’d try to find a local coffee roaster to partner with, to source your beans and (possibly) develop custom blends. Very few fan bases are more into “local, sustainable, artisanal” than coffee snobs, so being the neighborhood not-Starbucks can help.

However — sometimes buying a franchise or finding a national supplier can be the better business option
Think Different: – hot dogs and coffee carts; might solve all your cafe needs, plus you can run the hot dog cart as a fall-back after the store goes out of business.
Think Bigger:
Einstein Bros.
Dunkin’ Donuts.
Tim Hortons. – I’m much too far south (currently) to have a Tim Hortons but if I were looking for a way to immediately compete with B&N, Starbucks, and Amazon (all three) then I would want Timmy in my corner.


Other links:

“Third Place”
A return to the Great Good Place :
Rethinking the Box: Before you sign that lease :

Reinventing the Bookstore : Joanna Cabot, 7 July 2014, TeleRead
The Problem of Reinventing the Bookstore : Nate Hoffelder, 6 July 2014, The Digital Reader
How To Redesign Bookstores For The Amazon Era : Shaunacy Ferro, 3 June 2014, FastCompany Design
Let’s Reinvent the Bookshop : Rosanna De Lisle, May/June issue of Intelligent Life Magazine, republished online to the “More Intelligent Life” blog.

American Booksellers Association :
Small Business Administration :
IRS ( : Starting a Business
Internet Public Library ( : Starting a Small Business
American Library Association : Best of the Best Business Websites (annual awards lists)
Library of Congress : Business Reference Services
… And don’t forget your local library, especially if you live in a city and can make it to the ‘main’ library branch
… As well as local community colleges and continuing education programs
… and your local chamber of commerce or other local business association – many offer educational seminars as well as location-specific resources
… and in a pinch, your local Big Box Bookstore certainly has a business section as well, including many ‘Dummies’ books.

(Linking to it a 3rd time: this is handy stuff) US Census Bureau data by Zip Code :
…and just about Everything Else I can think to say on the topic :

Books are different, and special.

filed under , 30 May 2014, 20:14 by

Organic Asparagus runs about $5 a pound. Maybe less, maybe more (and in season of course). Not everyone has a local CSA to deliver organic asparagus, or a farmer’s market where they can pop down on a Saturday morning and buy a bunch, but other Asparagus Options exist. And if bloggers are blowing up websites arguing over asparagus, Organic vs Not, Domestic vs South American imports, well… I’m not seeing it.

SD Memory cards cost between $5 and $40 (or more) and the cards are available from different manufacturers and can be purchased online and in stores. I don’t even have to go to a specialty retailer; I can pick up a 4GB card from my local supermarket – no special trip, just toss it into the basket next to my organic asparagus, and maybe a impulse-buy DVD (from the checkout aisle) and altogether, I’ve spent $15: DVD, SD Card, Asparagus.

Steaks are also in that price range ($4-$20 a pound, available in store or online) and so are door knobs ($10-$50) and spatulas ($5-$20) — as are shoes, come to think of it (flipflops cost less than $5, and sure you can tell me about $200 shoes, but who buys those? ) [/SARCASM TAG]

And Books, of course.

Commodity good, runs about $10 a pound*, entirely fungible**, of note as a minor form of entertainment. We’re all familiar with books, but unless you’re a high schooler and you’ve just been assigned one – it’s hard to see why they merit further mention.

* (£13, €16 or ¥2200 a kilo)

** I don’t judge. …but, for my own sake, I’m going to link to this definition of fungible even though we all already know what it means. Because we’re smrt.

If, all of a sudden, the #4 manufacturer of SD memory cards got into a dispute with Amazon (or any other e-tailer – OR ALL other e-tailers) it might only merit a section C page 32 blip in the newspaper*** and no one outside of the manufacturers’ immediate circle would likely know or care. We’d just buy the next card offered.

*** kids, ‘newspapers’ were web pages printed out on cheap broadsheet paper and delivered daily, or twice daily, to homes: ask Grandpa about ‘em. Ask him what ‘comic strips’ looked like when he was a kid while you’re at it.

Asparagus doesn’t rate a whole slate of full-bore editorials from 500+ newspapers, newswires, magazines, blogs, and TV network websites. Shoes are more expensive (and the margins are better) (and more people buy them) but we don’t spill nearly as much ink (physical or digital) arguing about *shoes*.

Amazon doesn’t enter into a very public and very loaded negotiation with Adidas or Jimmy Choo. If a buy button (or a pre-order option) disappeared on sneakers, no one would notice. (OK, someone would notice…)

This is just my take on it [strawman]: but it seems to me that many would-be pundits want us to think of books just like we see memory cards — fungible commodity goods. Buy whatever. “You like teen vampire romance? Well, the vampires are out but try werewolves, we got plenty of those. Like cozy British mysteries? We’re working on getting those back in stock, but here, try these cat mysteries.”

Books are just the double-A farm team for *real* media anyway; nothing is worth a damn unless and until we make a TV show or movie out of it. “Oh sure, you can read if you want but I don’t know why you waste your time — hey, flip through this impulse-buy DVD bin, top 100 films of 199x, 3 for $10.”

A book wholesaler is arguing with a book retailer over which side of the table the scraps fall. Whoop whoop. [/strawman]

As widespread as this view is (in NY and LA offices, and some living rooms) Books are obviously different.

Shoes? “I’ll keep looking.” – Asparagus? “Maybe I’ll try the farmer’s market” – Spatulas? [see, there’s no quote here because no one thinks about spatulas] – Movies? “Where is the movie playing?” [no judgments, just a factual inquiry into where the movie is showing, so we can consider options]

But as soon as we learn a book might be unavailable, or worse, that we might have to wait to read it, even as much as two weeks! — or [horrors] might have to figure out some back-up place and way to buy it — well now the internet melts, people choose sides, authors and readers sharpen their debating knives, loose packs of rabid quibbles range the boards, and everyone is right while everyone else is wrong and facts and details — and common sense — are the innocent victims.

Because books.


You can stop here. I won’t judge.

I’ll make one final note: Even If Hachette stopped shipping to Amazon entirely, Amazon would still be able to source the physical books from Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and other book distributors and could fulfill customer orders with an additional delay of about 48 hours, at most. So the negotiation is all about the ebooks, and who gets which slice of how much margin; though I’m sure Amazon’s discounts on physical books is part of that mix. The rest of it is posturing on both sides, with some dissembling on Amazon’s part (“we don’t know when we’ll have the books”) and smug confidence that ‘public sentiment’ is on their side, on the part of Hachette.

And now I’m going to get wonky, and even more trivial and tangential.


Hachette v Amazon is all just business, and negotiations like this happen all the time, but the response so far feels a lot like the old ‘lit-geek vs. computer-geek smack-talking in the campus coffee shop’ I recall from college.

“What about the culture?”
“Get with the future, man.”
“The future is books.”
“…well then, the future is on sale for 35% off, free shipping with Prime. Oh, hey, I spilled some future in my Kindle, all kinds of future in here.”
… …philistine.

Amazon often elicits this style of knee-jerk response — because books.

But also: because Amazon. Enough people are threatened by Amazon that Amazon gets painted as a bad guy, and Amazon consistently ranks at the top of customer satisfaction surveys, and those two points aren’t necessarily contradictions.

But even with all the misperceptions and assumptions people make about Amazon, that fades to insignificance when we stop to look at the assumptions most people make about books and bookselling.

Let’s start with the business: Amazon may cut off Hachette, or (less likely) Hachette might drop the axe — a major supplier of content and a major reseller of content are fighting and the end result, to the consumer, is less content available from a preferred source. Would we be as worked up if, say, a major media company just pulled the plug on our TV over a contract negotiation? I think the answer to that is actually, no:

2000 Time Warner Cable v ABC/Disney
2003 Cablevision v the New York Yankees
2004 Comcast v Viacom
2004 Dish v Viacom
2009 Dish v ESPN
2009 Time Warner Cable v Fox
2010 Dish v The Weather Channel
2010 Cablevision v Scripps Networks (Food Network & HGTV)
2010 Cablevision v News Corp/Fox
2011 DirectTV v News Corp/Fox
2012 DirectTV v Viacom
2012 Time Warner Cable v NFL
2012 Dish v AMC
2012 DirectTV v the New York Yankees
2013 Time Warner Cable v CBS
2014 DirectTV v The Weather Channel
2014 Comcast v Viacom

Sometimes these disputes make the news because (some) viewers are going to miss a playoff game, or the Academy Awards, or the season premier of Mad Men. Otherwise the blackouts are of little note, especially if we’re not the in the market affected. The companies certainly don’t care; Time Warner lost 300,000 subscribers last year but shrugged and smiled. Yes, getting ‘public opinion’ on your side helps, but it’s just another bargaining chip and companies can spin it.

If we look outside of bookselling, we can see that ‘everything, always’ is by no means the usual model: stuff is on Hulu but not Netflix, or on HBO and no where else. Films and shows come out on DVD but aren’t available streaming anywhere – and occasionally, vice versa. Even in a landscape littered with dozen-screen cinemaplexes, somehow the movie we want to see is never showing anywhere local, and we have to drive 15 miles. (This always happens to me.)

But no one blames the theaters, just like no one blames Netflix, HBO, or Showtime for making original programming, and no one [EXCEPT ME] gets bitter or bothered when Netflix and Hulu have a less-than-optimal selection (though perhaps we’ve all spent 3 hours browsing for something to stream on a Friday night without actually watching anything). Screens, large and small, are just islands and way-stops in the Big Content Ocean, and we’re all used to migrating ‘cross platforms and ‘twixt companies to find something to watch.

No blogger looks at a movie showing the next county over, and extrapolates that Hollywood is going to have to capitulate to Regal, because Regal controls the market. Media and markets are of course separate, of course — you know, *except* for books.

The reader expectation is that every bookstore is going to have a copy of any book the reader can name — because books. When the local 4,000 sq.ft. shop doesn’t have it (or even the 25,000 sq.ft. big box) the immediate response is, “Well, I’ll just get it from Amazon” with the unspoken addendum, “and I’m never bothering to shop here again”.

Let’s talk numbers — but not dollars: Items.

A “supermarket” grocery store might have between 40,000-60,000 items.
Walmarts and Super Targets add onto that, and stock 100,000 items.
A large hardware store/home improvement warehouse might have 120,000 items [it comes down to lots and lots of small nuts and bolts, in every dimension]. And we’re not counting every nut – that’s 120,000 types of items, stocking multiples of each.
Your local IKEA only stocks 10,000 or so items — Yes, 3 football fields (and Swedish meatballs) but a Walmart or Super Target has more SKUs.

Do you have that in mind?
The Ikea Maze?
Canned goods on shelves 6 feet high and down both sides of 60ft-long aisles?
Wandering the warehouse-sized sales floor of Home Depot, lost, looking for a left-handed metric counter-clockwise-threaded sonic screwdriver adapter? (that’s what 120,000 items feels like.)

That’s just retail. Let’s consider ‘content’. Video content is most popular (an assumption, but a safe assumption I think):

There are 2,885,994 titles in the IMDB database (as of this morning) — though of course that’s ridiculous as individual TV episodes each get pages — it’s better to look at the breakdown and note that’s ~309,000 feature films, 122,000 documentaries, 82,000 TV series listings, another 100,000 or so of TV movies, miniseries, and specials, and some direct-to-video crap (120,000 – each a gem and a delight, I’m sure) — Big Round Numbers, that’s 1.1 Million video options, of which most are out-of-print or collectible —with a light sprinkling of stuff so new it’s not out on DVD or online, and occasionally, not even in theaters yet.

…and the ‘Movie+TV Universe’ that you probably have a mental concept of is likely just a tenth of that — 100,000 movies and shows, new and old, even including anime and imports and MST3K and the Star Wars Christmas Special and weird stuff — and the other 90% is so ‘out there’ you’ve never even heard of it, not even to point and laugh at it. Does that match up to your experience, and sound fair? 100,000 movies and shows, or about 45 years of binge watching (likely much more – multiple-season TV shows are going to take you longer to binge).

[I’ll just note here that Amazon bought IMDB in 1998. Information is power.]

(I’m building up to it, stick with me here…)

100,000 is a whole Walmart. 100,000 is every thing ever that you could possibly think to stream online. 100,000 is the number of spectators in attendance at the Michigan-Ohio game (or Tennessee home games, for you SEC fans). 100,000 is the population of Peoria, Illinois – which I always reference out of tradition when these sorts of things come up. The uber-hipster neighborhood of ur-hipster Brooklyn is Williamsburg and it has, you guessed it, 100,000 hipsters in it.

Your local Big Box Books (might as well say Barnes & Noble, no need for the euphemism anymore) has…

60,000 books in it (yeah, not 100,000) — add on the music/DVD dept. (if your local still has one) and all the non-book crapware and we’re up to 100,000, though. A B&N is smaller than Walmart because books are smaller, and pack nice-and-dense compared to almost all other retail; and you know, at $10 a pound it’d actually be a good business to get into — except for, you know, Amazon and reality.

I’ve been working on a good ‘best estimate’ of the actual number of books out there for years now, and I can never find two sources that agree. However, the general consensus is that at least six million books are in print (actively supported by publishers, with stock on hand) and another six million or so are out-of-print but still available from distributors, available used, or some few cases available print-on-demand — so that’s at least 12 million books (in English) out of at about 129 million books total [source, 2010] and another million or so get added each and every year — not including an untold number of books (we’re gaining on multiple millions) that have only been published digitally.

Forget 129 Million – go back to that smaller number, 12 Million: four times the total listings on IMDB (which includes every individual TV episode), equivalent to 100 Home Depots, each nut-and-bolt a 200 page novel. 120 Walmarts. 200 grocery stores. [furniture is bigger, even flatpacked, but] 1200 Ikeas — and we’re only considering one copy of each book

Your local bookstore is expected to carry every book ever. See, this isn’t even an ‘unreasonable’ expectation on the part of the shopping public because there’s never any thought put into it: bookstores sell books, and in 2014, that means every book ever.

every. book. ever.

How does Amazon do it? What’s the magic? 65 U.S. Distribution Centers — whole damn warehouses — with another 9 planned.

…And this is perhaps the sweetest backhanded compliment we pay to the booksellers who have worked for decades to find, order, and sell us books: There is a casual, everyday assumption that they can match that, and can match prices. This is an expectation we have of no other retailer — the unmatchable scale of the task, and unthinking gall of it — at the very least, “special order” has a much different connotation (and usually, a mark-up) outside of bookstores.

No one strides confidently into the Buick dealership and asks to order a 1954 Studebaker, but that’s an every day reality for bookstores.

It was breaking my heart, in the last year that I worked at the bookstore, when avid teenage readers started coming in asking about books their friends were reading on Kindles, and I had to explain that not only did we not have the books in store, there wasn’t even a listing, and no way on earth or in faerie for us to order them — the kids were looking for paperbacks.
(Worse, in a way, was finding a paperback listing for just one book, coming out months from now because a publisher ‘picked up’ an ebook author, when the customer was looking for all 4-5 books in what they knew was a series. My explanation fell flat. The book business is complex, and front-line book retailers should be pitied.)

For physical bookstores, though ‘every book ever’ has been the constant background murmur (and default retort) for at least two decades – after two decades of Amazon the customer base is getting tetchy.

“You don’t have it?” [sniff] “Well I guess I’ll just order it from Amazon.”

1998 (or maybe 1999) was the Golden Year for bookstores (even though the peak came later, in 2005) — in 1998, the mall stores were still open, Patterson was still writing his own books, Harry Potter was on book two and the films hadn’t ruined anything yet, and epic fantasy fans were enjoying the second book of A Song of Ice and Fire with Martin on track to release a book every other year. [“HA!”]

Amazon was an option for the savvy, but more of a footnote than a terror.

In the 15 years since: author advances have been shrinking, print runs are smaller, the ranks of independent bookstores were decimated by Barnes, Borders, and Big Box bookselling — and then Borders went out of business on us. The number of places to buy, and the shelves dedicated to books, have both been curtailed. Whether we shop at Amazon because the stores suck or the stores now suck because of Amazon: there is a feedback loop in operation that is negative for physical storefronts (and increasingly, physical formats).

Into this charged atmosphere: we insert a (routine, everyday) business negotiation between a manufacturer and a retailer.

Except books are different. Just because. I can’t explain it (any more than I have— I at least tried to). We invest emotions in books. We tie up our identity with books. We take sides, we want to argue and we want to fight, and while the ranks of readers may be small compared to the population-at-large — apparently readers are handy with words and we like to write. (who knew?) It’s only a tempest in a teapot, but there’s a great echo in here and we all like the tea.

The current discussion doesn’t matter much, and the resolution will be between Amazon and Hachette and they’ll come to terms without our input but we really can’t help ourselves.

Because books.

Amazon's Generosity

filed under , 26 May 2014, 11:39 by


“Amazon offered a choice. Not just for writers, but for consumers who wanted larger selections and didn’t want to pay luxury prices for books. (Publishers didn’t just control who got published, they also controlled the prices of their titles. What other industry prints a price on its product?)”
Turow & Patterson: A Plateful of Fail with Extra Helpings of Stupid

see also: Five+ years of me angsting on Amazon


Amazon is not a Great Evil, hellbent on destroying publishing.

Amazon is a business, and is using their market position to be even-more business like.

Is that evil? Yes, actually, I think abusing your market position to extract profits without providing additional value is kind of evil, but apparently I’m alone on that — and just because Amazon isn’t attempting to extract the extra money out of their customers (yet), I’m told my opinion doesn’t matter, or worse, that I suffer from Amazon Derangement Syndrome for pointing out the obvious.

Are publishers any better?

The major media conglomerates that currently own the publishers aren’t. A publisher who can’t add value (production and marketing support) to a book certainly isn’t entitled to take a large percentage of its profits. But is the model bad? I think it was working up until the 80s, and then a lot of things happened before Amazon got started [consolidation, shifts in book retail — including the rise of first the mall chains and then the big box stores, the ‘elevation’ of genre fiction, and the multi-media tie-in] and Amazon stepped in to abuse the exploits readily available because the book business was (from a “business” standpoint) “broken”.

If Amazon is “good” and the publishers are “bad” — then what’s the third way?

If it is all just business, then any well-run business should be able to provide services to both readers and writers in ways that do not require the publisher’s scale and clout to get shelved in bookstores, and don’t rely on the size of Amazon’s customer base and on Amazon’s generosity. If it’s ‘stupid’ to ignore Amazon because “that’s where the customers are” then you’ve merely traded one pair of gatekeepers (the acquiring editor, the chain book-buyer in New York) for a different set of gates, and all the gates are owned by Amazon.

Sure, for an ebook Amazon will pay an author up to 70%, assuming the author adopts Amazon’s preferred pricing structure, but why does Amazon charge 30% at all? If it’s only about hosting the data, it looks like 1 GB of storage and 5 GB of data transfers (customer downloads, in this case) would only cost me 17¢ a month using Amazon’s own Web Services — that’s 17¢ for the data (…per month, and I’d only be charged for what I use), so I guess the other $.72 (on a $2.99 kindle book) is sales commission? For listing the book on Amazon’s website?

Except… the web site is automated, too. The author fills out the book metadata, decides which keywords and categories to use; the customers submit the reviews. Amazon is just providing the server space and the download (for 17¢ a month). Customers find the book using search, or by browsing — which means relying on Amazon’s algorithms and hoping that there isn’t some dumb reason Amazon would want to hide your book from the search results, or to keep it off of top 10 or top 100 lists.

Amazon makes money on Kindle books in aggregate so it doesn’t have to support any one author, or any one category or genre of books, or even provide any support at all so long as the website is up and the servers are running.

Amazon deserves credit for setting up the system (and for leaving the lights on for the rest of us, I guess) but it doesn’t do anything; the sales commission it earns is for providing access to its customer base, a de-facto social network of millions of readers who have self-selected — for reasons of cost and/or convenience — and are the fraction of readers that are both more technically savvy and most willing to try digital options (because they did, when they first chose to try Amazon).

Amazon may “only be 30% of the market” but represents at least 75% of the ebook market, because that’s who their customers are. Amazon only takes a 30% cut — for books under $10 (a pricing scheme they enforce, and they take 65% if you choose to deviate from their guidelines) — for a service that costs them pennies on a closed platform they control. Amazon only provides the listing, the author is then responsible for the marketing, and for generating enthusiasm in their readers. Some authors are very successful on Amazon’s platform and that’s fantastic — but no one has asked them the question: now that they have a reader base, do they need Amazon?

Amazon processes the payments, so that’s nice (and the hosting and distribution of files) and of course there are interactions and synergies that come from being listed next to other authors and books — benefits that outweigh the trivial fact that other authors are technically the competition. But I can just as easily push books from my website — in fact there are Wordpress plugins that can turn any blog into a store. Sure, it’s a lot of work — but the arguments against publishers (“I can hire a proofreader, and an editor, and a cover artist, and someone to format the ebook for me… hell, I’m doing all my own marketing anyway… why do I need a publisher?”) can also be applied to Amazon (…now you need to hire a web programmer, and a web designer, but the rates are going to be similar to a good book editor, and once a solution and/or model is in place many authors will be able to copy it, or parts of it).

I repeat myself for emphasis: If Amazon is “good” and the publishers are “bad” — then what’s the third way?

If it is all just business, then any well-run business should be able to provide services to both readers and writers in ways that do not require the publisher’s scale and clout to get shelved in bookstores, and don’t rely on the size of Amazon’s customer base and on Amazon’s “generosity”.

Monopoly, monopsony, whatever… Amazon is not the final solution, but gets a lot of the credit (and a lot of goodwill) for having “solved” the book “problem”.

All I see is a single player that has gobbled up too much of both book publishing and book retail. Amazon’s Generosity should not be taken for granted, or assumed to be limitless. I suppose the advice to authors should be: get in now, while the getting is good, and hope you can make your roll before the rules change and Amazon, in its great indifference, rolls over you.

New York Times reports 17-year-old "news"

filed under , 27 March 2014, 17:47 by

“Rising rents in Manhattan have forced out many retailers, from pizza joints to flower shops. But the rapidly escalating cost of doing business there is also driving out bookstores, threatening the city’s sense of self as the center of the literary universe, the home of the publishing industry and a place that lures and nurtures authors and avid readers.”
Literary City, Bookstore Desert: Surging Rents Force Booksellers From Manhattan : Julie Bosman, 25 March 2014, New York Times

…this sounded really familiar to me for some reason. Oh, right:

“The B. Dalton on Fifth stayed open for close to two decades, until 1997. At that point the chain was owned by Barnes & Noble — and the hubbub wasn’t about new big boxes forcing out bookstores, but about rising rents in New York forcing some of the big boxes to close.”
Rocket Bomber, 24 February 2009

…and the B. Dalton on fifth, that I made note of five years ago?

“After 36 years of business, the Doubleday Book Shop on Fifth Avenue, a cerebral antidote to Tiffany’s glitter and Bergdorf’s finery, is shutting its doors at the end of the month. It will be the seventh bookstore to close on the avenue since the early 1980’s, signaling the end of midtown Manhattan’s strolling boulevard for book lovers.”
Another Fifth Ave. Bookshop Is Felled by High Rents : Lisa W. Foederaro, 17 June 1997 …that was seventeen years ago, as reported in some local rag, which one was it again? oh, yeah: the New York Times.

“‘You just have to walk down Fifth Avenue to see what New York has become — it’s become an outlet mall for rich people,’ said Esther Newberg, a literary agent, adding that she had just received an email from a Random House editor noting that the company was able to print books quickly because it owns its own printing plant. ‘Why don’t they own their own bookstore?’”
Bosman, op. cit.

Barnes & Noble could stand to own a little real estate, too: I mean, why negotiate rents, why not own the building? Of course, they did own a building, but they closed that bookstore in January.

I find it hard to cry for Manhattan. I feel sorry for some New Yorkers but it seems like the Powers That Be are rebuilding that borough into exactly what they want, a gated community and theme park for the rich …and apparently, also a collection of neighborhoods without bookstores.

Perhaps this should instead be a wake-up call for every publisher who still maintains an office in Manhattan: is it really worth the rent? I mean, when you can’t walk down the street to see your product for sale in a store window, is New York really the “book capital” of the US anymore?

“What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul.”
― Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Amazon, the Book Utility Company

filed under , 1 March 2014, 11:07 by

“Therein lies the rub. Publishing on your own website is still just too damn geeky. The siren-call of the silos is backed up with genuinely powerful, easy to use, well-designed tools. I don’t know if independent publishing can ever compete with that. In all likelihood, the independent web will never be able to match the power and reach of the silos. But that won’t stop me (and others) from owning our own words. If nothing else, we can at least demonstrate that the independent path is an option—even if that option requires more effort.”
In dependence : Jeremy Keith, 28 December 2013,

“I made a million dollars last year from self-publishing. I’ve found that, without gatekeepers, I can reach readers much easier. And readers are much more eager to buy me when I control cover, cost, and jacket blurbs, as evidenced by the fact that I’ve made 8x as much as a self-publisher as I did with my legacy contracts.
“Readers don’t care who the publisher is. They don’t care if the work is agented. They care about quality and price, and are able to find books they like without any gatekeepers other than each other and the increasingly adaptive ability for websites like Amazon to understand readers’ tastes.
“As an agent, you could be helping your clients make important decisions about self-publishing. That is, if you are pro-client. That might mean advising them to pass up a bad deal and go solo.”
Questions for Literary Agent David Gernert : Joe Konrath, 24 January 2014,

Neither online sales nor ebooks were original to Amazon, but Amazon has had a lot of success selling their brand to the public and have gained mindshare that in a way is even more important than their market share.

Amazon’s user base makes it a default social media site, smaller than Facebook or Twitter but more important because every Amazon account has a real name, address, and credit card attached — and that’s even before we consider Amazon also knows every shopper’s browsing and buying history.

“One-third of consumers now begin their online shopping expeditions on the site, comparing models, specs, prices and customer reviews for an expansive assortment that spans not just Amazon’s inventory but that of its more than 2 million third-party Marketplace affiliates, which comprise nearly 40 percent of the company’s unit volume. Other features like one-click ordering, tailored product recommendations, a no-hassle return policy and free two-day shipping with a $79 membership in the Amazon Prime program has made it the go-to merchant for more than 200 million regular shoppers worldwide.” Growth Creating New CE Retail Paradigms, Challenges : Alan Wolf, 2 June 2013, Twice Magazine

“Combine the 2 formats and Amazon may have a market share for some categories of books over 50%. And that market share will continue to grow as more and more books are sold in electronic form, since Amazon’s market share for ebooks is even greater than for print. So we should not be surprised to wake up one day to find that Amazon is responsible for the sale of as much as two-thirds of all the books sold outside of libraries in the U.S. (Note to DOJ: I said ‘wake up’ for a reason.)
“A rival to Amazon will be hard to come by.”
Who Can Rival Amazon? : Joseph Esposito, 22 January 2014, The Scholarly Kitchen

“Amazon has succeeded building an ecommerce and customer relationship platform that customers love. It’s a combination of a superb user interface, extraordinarily skilled analysis of customer data and a genius logistics system.
“The comment in the article about ‘the tools of ecommerce’ being readily available for competitors reflects a lack of understanding about how hard it is to do what Amazon does. Randy Penguin doesn’t have the money or talent to do it. Neither does Apple. (Yes, PG knows Apple sells a bazillion apps and songs each year, but do you really think iTunes is even in the same universe as Amazon’s store?)
“Nobody in the publishing business can displace Amazon at this point and probably forever. The intellectual and technical bandwidth is just not there.”
Commentary on the Scholarly Kitchen post above, at The Passive Voice

“8. It has been happening quietly but it has been happening: we increasingly have two separately-operating book businesses: Amazon’s and everybody else’s. This starts with the numbering system: Amazon uses its own ASINs, rather than depending on everybody else’s ISBNs. It extends to the titles available: Amazon has an untold number, but certainly hundreds of thousands, that it either publishes exclusively or which authors or small presses publish exclusively through them. And it has service offerings from Kindle Owners Lending Library to its recent Matchbook offer to pair ebook and print sales, which range from ‘extremely difficult’ to ‘impossible’ for any other publisher-retailer combination to match. How far can this go? Can Amazon create a closed world which is more profitable for an author or publisher than the whole world that includes everybody else? Or have they already?”
Nine places to look in 2014 to predict the future of publishing : Mike Shatzkin, 1 January 2014, The Shatzkin Files
“1. What’s going to happen with retail shelf space for books? The market for the kind of narrative reading that comprises the bestseller lists has gone anywhere from half to three-quarters online, ebooks and print combined. The rate of movement has slowed, but it hasn’t stopped. It has now been two full years since Borders shut. Barnes & Noble continues to close stores as leases expire. Independents are, anecdotally, reported to be holding their own, but they’re definitely challenged to deliver on the online component and, so far, the successes have depended on individual entrepreneurs running good local stores, not any formula that is replicable or scalable. When will we see a stable ‘floor’ for bookstores, a sustainable foundation from which year-to-year fluctuations won’t persistently be down? I don’t think it will be in 2014, but it’s the most important bunch of tea leaves to read for some segments of the business.”

“There’s this tendency among advocates to compare the absolute worst of the enemy with the perfect, best case scenario on your own side. The crowd that is hostile to self-publishing often likes to compare the worst dinosaur porn (which still sold, though, and made more money than many other titles) to one of those wonderful, Never-Neverland publishing companies that to this day invests massively in editors, doesn’t use exploitative covers, spends its untold riches on making the book’s typography absolutely perfect, has a workflow that spits out beautiful, error-free ebooks with ease, gives every author a personal PR rep, and has a multi-million dollar marketing budget for every title.
Of course self-publishing looks bad when you compare it with a piece of fiction that’s less realistic than the more deranged parts of Alice in Wonderland.
“The reality is that book retail has been steadily deteriorating over the years and publishers themselves have been compromised by decades of cost-cutting. Most book sales are online. Titles today get much less editorial attention than similar titles did years ago. Covers have always been completely disconnected from the book’s actual content.
“In terms of marketing, quality, distribution and design the difference between a competently published book and a competently self-published one is now less than you think. Competent self-publishing is getting easier every year as tools and services improve. Publishers offer less and less as they try to stay competitive through cost cuts and ‘optimisations’. Over time publishers seem to be devolving into self-publishing services that offer little but demand everything.”
Except, except, except : Baldur Bjarnason, 23 January 2014, Studio Tendra

We may already be at the point where Amazon is Too Big To Fight. Not that it can’t be done; I’d be willing to bet most stupid/funny t-shirts are sold from non-Amazon sites and iTunes (which truly and horrifically sucks) still beats Amazon in music sales. Freedom is still possible even under the Eye of Bezos, so long as his attention is elsewhere.

“Amazon is the largest online retailer globally, and it got to be that way because of books. Jeff Bezos started Amazon in 1994 after identifying a market that was poorly managed by traditional stakeholders, and made it more convenient for consumers to access the products they wanted. Early investment in the Kindle platform, consisting of ereading devices, tablets, and apps, took foresight that was lacking in the traditional book industry and helped Amazon come to dominate the ebook market worldwide.”
Comment: How I learned to stop worrying and love Amazon : Anne Treasure, 21 November 2013,

The Authors Guild Should Embrace Amazon as a Friend to Writers and Readers. Until publishers make these changes, the Authors Guild should be celebrating Amazon for increasing readership, increasing the diversity of published voices, lowering prices for readers while also increasing royalties for writers, and revolutionizing reading in a way that keeps it relevant. Blaming Amazon for the move of goods out of physical stores and onto online stores is ridiculous. This is the inevitable result of the creation of the internet. This is the freedom of shoppers to choose. It was going to happen, no matter what. And here’s something that I doubt has been said before: Thank God it was Amazon.
“Think about it for a moment. It could have been WalMart or Costco or a number of other massive retailers who began shipping books at a discount through an online portal. It could have been a retail giant that sells everything that began to sell books online. Instead, it was an online bookseller who branched out into other products. There is a massive difference. The love of books remains at the heart of Amazon. Those who have worked with the people behind that smiling logo know this. From Jeff Bezos (who married a writer and started out by selling books out of his garage) down to the people I met on the factory floor of the CreateSpace printing facility, I’ve never been around a group who loves books more. The Authors Guild should be championing Amazon for what they’ve done for readers and writers. The pressure for fairer contracts and wages is coming primarily from here. The champion for the status quo and more abuses is coming from the guild of my profession. Dystopian novels can’t satirize this sort of thing without being mocked for being ridiculous.” [emphasis in original]
Bread and Roses : Hugh C. Howey, 24 January 2014,

To Howey’s point, Bezos may love books; I have no way of confirming or denying that. But my bet is that Bezos loves money more.

“I have seen the future of, and it looks like Wal-Mart. This may come as a surprise to those who are accustomed to thinking of as a bookstore. After all, books are what the company is known for, and promotes itself as ‘Earth’s biggest bookstore.’ But books are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s widely known that founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, when he was starting out, made a list of products that would be well-suited to Web sales. Books topped that list — but they’re clearly not the only things on it. In fact,’s recent acquisition of Junglee Corp. (announced as this column went to press) confirms the bookseller’s intention of getting into a broader retail market: Junglee makes software agents that facilitate online shopping. Why do you think Bezos chose a generic name like ‘Amazon’ anyhow? It’s sheer size that Bezos cares about, not just books.”
No mere bookstore, wants to be an online retail giant : Dylan Tweney, 10 August 1998, Net Prophet []


“Amazon had three things going for it in the early days (four, if you count the drive and ambition of Bezos): Books already had a computerized database (since 1986 in fact), books already had a nation-wide distribution network built to service bookstores (Ingram et al., op. cit.), and one of those book warehouses (one of the largest) was just six hours away in Oregon.
“Amazon’s twist on book delivery was the cash conversion cycle: they sell you a book, then they buy it and ship it, then they charge your card, and only at some later date do they lazily get around to paying their source for the book. (standard payment terms on books used to be 90 days – plenty of time to deliver book, claim payment, and then sit on that cash or park it in a short-term CD.)
“Amazon didn’t even need a lot of inventory to launch (they used a garage) because of this neat trick — and of course I know they do things differently now, with distribution centers all over the place and same-day delivery in some markets (integrated verticals are more efficient, and cost effective) — but this is how they built an empire on nothing. Well, not nothing nothing, I mean: Bezos was a former investment banker (presumably not worrying about rent or groceries) and was able to tap his Dad for a quarter million. (well, that’s not quite true: $100,000 came from his dad, the other $145,000 came from his father’s trust fund — the more I dig into this the more it spikes my blood pressure)
“So Amazon was a truly Great idea (though not 100% original) and had some really great implementation — but the ‘great idea’ wasn’t the website or the back-end software or servers, or even the product. Amazon succeeded because of timing, luck, starting with ‘a’ (a big deal in the pre-Google Yahoo Directory days), and most importantly: because of creative accounting. Amazon was not launched by a genius and engineeer who invented something amazing — Amazon was not a new iteration of an old service, computer-aided and internet-enabled, to add value to an older sales model — Amazon was not the obvious and organic outreach of a bookseller determined to reach all readers, no matter how isolated —
“Amazon was the brainchild of a banker, and exists to make money. (Extra points go to Bezos for figuring out how to make money without returning any to his shareholders.)”
Let’s Talk About The Business, Then. : Rocket Bomber, 8 May 2013 — minor edits for clarity.

“Back in 1994, Jeff Bezos was a young senior vice president on the rise at a thriving Wall Street hedge fund. But when the explosive growth of the World Wide Web caught his eye, he saw an even bigger opportunity: online commerce. Two years later Bezos, CEO of the Internet bookstore, is one of a crew of young entrepreneurs using cyberspace technology to steal real-world customers from traditional businesses with strong consumer and industrial franchises.”
The Next Big Thing: A Bookstore? is leading a wave of digital shops out to invade established industries. : Michael H. Martin, 9 December 1996, Fortune Magazine archived at

“Bezos first got the idea to start an Internet enterprise in 1994. While surfing the Internet in search of new ventures for D.E. Shaw & Co. to invest in, he came across the statistic that World Wide Web usage was growing by 2,300 percent a month. Bezos immediately recognized the expansive possibilities of selling online and began exploring the entrepreneurial possibilities of developing an Internet business.
“He drew up a list of 20 potential products he thought might sell well via the Internet, including software, CDs and books. After reviewing the list, books were the obvious choice, primarily because of the sheer number of titles in existence. Bezos realized that while even the largest superstores could stock only a few hundred thousand books, a mere fraction of what is available, a ‘virtual’ bookstore could offer millions of titles. The die was cast. Bezos passed up a fat bonus, packed his wife, MacKenzie, and their dog, Kamala (named after an obscure ‘Star Trek’ character), and headed for Seattle.
“For Bezos, Seattle was the ideal city for his new business. Not only was it home to a tremendous pool of high-tech talent, it was also in close proximity to Ingram Book Group’s Oregon warehouse. While MacKenzie drove, Jeff spent the trip pecking out a business plan on a laptop computer and calling prospective investors on a cell phone. With $1 million raised from family and friends, Bezos rented a house in Seattle and set up his business in the garage.”
Jeff Bezos: The King Of E-Commerce, unattributed and undated (from ’5 years ago’) article at Entrepreneur Magazine’s website []

I Don’t Hate Amazon. No, really. I’m coming to terms with them, and of course, like everyone else, I’m an Amazon customer. [primarily for MP3 music files; iTunes sucks.]

But is Amazon a “savior” of authors and readers, rescuing us from the predations of the Evil Publishing Companies and leading us to the promised land?

“Amazon achieved the position it has in the book ecosystem through a combination of brilliance, execution, natural forces, and some good luck but, above all, focus. It had to take some big chances with pricing and margin to get where it has gotten, but that’s not really necessary anymore. Doing some very logical and natural things, like the new Matchbook program and rolling out more subscription and pricing offerings (like their new ‘Countdown Clock’ discounts for new Kindle titles) will keep their share growing and their competitors scrambling. They will also almost certainly be coming after publishers for more margin (as will their equally dominant counterparts on the store side, Barnes & Noble), but it would seem unlikely that they’ll see the need to extend themselves to sign up authors or build out their ability to distribute print to other people’s stores.

“[T]he good news for publishers is that the business they now have will look less and less appealing compared to other worlds Amazon might conquer. That should save them from having a bulls-eye on their backs, but it will remain a very challenging environment where their biggest customer is the most powerful force in the marketplace and growth outside that customer is harder and harder to achieve. The publishing activities of Amazon will continue to get bigger; the industry of other publishers will continue to get smaller. But we are probably in for a period of slow and steady shifts rather than cataclysms.”
Amazon might lose interest in total hegemony over the book business before they achieve it : Mike Shatzkin, 5 November 2013, The Shatzkin Files

“I think printed books and eBooks will exist side by side for a long time yet, even as LPs are still around alongside the iPod. And they will definitely come in handy after the zombie apocalypse, because they don’t require batteries. Just be careful with your glasses, Burgess. There’s no adjusting the font size on paper.”
Scott Pearson, 3 November 2013 : Enemy Lines: Dispatches from a Cranky Writer

“Still, I don’t think it’s really fair for publishers to blame Amazon for the fact that people like to do their shopping online, and that easily-digitizable content is going to exist mainly in a virtual world rather than the real world. Indeed, there’s an argument that Amazon has saved the publishing industry from going the way of the record labels — that it’s made buying e-books so easy that the number of free pirated versions out there is still tiny. (Amazon has made it easier to find second-hand books, which publishers don’t directly benefit from, but at the same time it’s at the forefront of pushing e-books, which can’t be resold after you’ve bought them. Net-net, let’s call that one a wash.)
“Publishers have always been conservative, and Amazon represents a massive change in their industry. What’s more, the move from small booksellers to B&N to Amazon has been a move where the booksellers have ever-increasing amounts of leverage over the publishers; it’s understandable that the publishers don’t like that. But I just can’t believe that Amazon is, or would ever want to be, an existential threat to the publishing industry.”
Is Amazon bad for publishers? : Felix Salmon, 3 November 2013, Reuters Analysis & Opinion; Felix Salmon

“Amazon has always been about disintermediation and squeezing margins. What better way to do so than by cutting out one of the foodchain’s biggest pieces, the publisher. Horror stories have always been told of how certain bestsellers were rejected by editors from multiple publishing houses. And just how much value does the typical publisher add to a book these days? That’s become a very difficult question for publishers to answer, especially in light of all the self-publishing options that offer significantly higher royalty rates. Amazon continues creating new imprints and adding staff. Don’t let flops like Tim Ferris’ latest book throw you off; Bezos always takes the long-term view, so a few high-profile disappointments won’t deter Amazon’s plans.”
Kindle Singles and the future of ebooks : Joe Wikert, 21 October 2013,

“In an Amazon world, particularly with free Prime shipping, the idea of a shopping trip begins to feel inefficient. If you think of something you need, just pull up Amazon and order it, then get on with more important things in your life. PG routinely orders all sorts of non-book things from Amazon that he formerly bought at various retail stores.
“If you hear about an interesting book (or, more likely, read about one online), why worry about making a mental note to look for it out the next time you visit a bookstore? Just download the sample and check it out at your next break. Watching TV and see someone talking about an interesting book? Pick up your tablet and download a sample or buy the book if it really sounds great.
“Browsing for books is something PG sort of does all the time, not just when he’s visiting a bookstore. For him, serendipity happens constantly and almost everywhere.”
The Absence Of Serendipity, Or, Why I Hate Shopping At Amazon : 22 November 2013, The Passive Voice

The Guardian reported that 98 UK publishers went out of business over the past year, an increase of 42% over the year before

“Indeed, as the paper points out, it is ‘niche academic and educational publishers’ that are ‘particularly vulnerable,’ because their business model is under attack by digital piracy as well as secondhand book sales on sites like Amazon Marketplace. Cork said, ‘The arrival of Amazon has transformed the secondhand book trade from a fairly minor nuisance to a serious threat. Where once you had to trawl the secondhand bookshops if you wanted to get hold of a cheap hardback or academic book, you can now be fairly certain of getting hold of what you want at the click of a button, and the publisher will not make a penny.’
“Another factor, of course, is the explosive growth in sales of ebooks, whose lower price has also helped to undermine publisher’s margins.”
What’s Driving UK Publishers Out of Business? : Dennis Abrams, 8 November 2013, Publishing Perspectives : The Guardian article cited is “Ebooks and discounts drive 98 publishers out of business”, 4 November 2013

“After writing more than 20 books, with major publishers behind them, I have found it increasingly difficult to get new ideas accepted. It is also frustrating as a writer to have a non-fiction book that is up-to-the-minute when ‘completed’, only for it to come out maybe nine months later and seem slightly dated.
“So I have ventured into the self-publishing ebook market with Breaking the Silence: The Films of John Pilger. My original book about the journalist’s documentaries was published by Bloomsbury in 2001, but that was 12 years ago and Pilger is still going strong, with an even greater body of work. Suggestions that the book might be updated have been declined – the general feeling of publishers seems to be that it has ‘been done’.
“In setting about doing the job myself, I soon discovered some major advantages. Once written, an ebook can be published at the click of a computer’s mouse. When I started, Pilger was making his latest documentary, Utopia (in cinemas now and on television and DVD next month), and I have been able to give the book added impact by tying in with its release. How many of the big publishers can do that?”
Fact: Self-publishing my non-fiction as ebooks makes sense : Anthony Hayward, 19 November 2013, The Guardian online, books section

“A friend of mine who is a longtime independent sales rep says that even the successful indies are finding it necessary to sell books and other things — cards, gifts, chotchkes — to survive. The mega-bookstore with 75,000 or 100,000 titles or more was a magnet for customers in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. It isn’t so much anymore because the multi-million title bookstore is available through anybody’s computer. This is a fact that makes the number of successful stores a weak indicator of the distribution potential available to publishers. If replacement stores carry half the inventory of the ones that go out, we can have a lot of indie retail success stories but still a shrinking ecosystem into which publishers distribute their books.”
The future of bookstores is the key to understanding the future of publishing : Mike Shatzkin, 23 January 2014, The Shatzkin Files

“And there’s one presumption that seems like a real doozy: Knowing that a large portion of book sales are still in paper, Howey assumes the continued existence of bookstores. These days, that seems like a very shaky assumption. Recently, Jeff Jordan, formerly CEO of OpenTable and now an investor at the firm of Andreesen-Horozwitz, declared that the tipping point for e-commerce, particularly for media, has been reached. This is not a particularly data laden or insightful declaration; his post includes unsurprising monotonic trend lines for digital sales for consumer goods categories. However, Jordan is right to point out the inexorability of this transition: conversion to digital commerce is likely to be a unidirectional phenomenon, because at heart, digital distribution is cheaper.”
Been Down So Long : Peter Brantley, 25 January 2014, PWxyz

“Here’s the hard truth about bookstores — and yes, I need to write a long post on this — no bookstore carries every book published that week, let alone that month or that year. When I was travelling last week, I stopped in bookstore after bookstore, from Hudson News to Powell’s to some other indies whose names my tired brain can’t remember, and none of them had one of my favorite mystery author’s latest book. He’s a New York Times bestseller and his book came out the day I left. I had special-ordered a copy, and figured I would regret it, because I’d see it everywhere. Instead, I saw it nowhere.
“That’s pretty common these days. Not even the Times bestsellers are getting physical shelf space.
“Why? Because bookstores now have virtual catalogs, and the authors their customers buy less frequently aren’t on the shelf, but in the virtual catalog.”
The Business Rusch: Pricing Part 2 Or (Discoverability Part 7 Continued) : Kristine Kathryn Rusch, 22 January 2014,

“This has really been Amazon’s secret sauce from the beginning. The book publishing industry scratched its collective head for years as Jeff Bezos and his crew grew a giant online bookseller without keeping much margin and had Wall Street shovel money at them to grow and invest. The widespread wisdom in publishing in the late 1990s was that Amazon was performing some kind of parlor trick that would shortly come to an end. Instead, they built on their customer base, their tech, and their reputation for service to expand way beyond book retailing. And today they can afford to run a profit-less book retailing and publishing operation (if they want to; I have no evidence that they don’t make profits and don’t claim to know), taking the margin out of the game in a way that would squeeze any competitor trying to make a profit from book retailing.”
Book publishing may not remain a stand-alone industry and book retailing will demonstrate that first : Mike Shatzkin, 29 January 2014, The Shatzkin Files

Of course, I’m sure I’m just overthinking it.

“In the old days things were much clearer. All you had to do to call yourself a writer was publish a book, which meant you needed someone else to publish it – and someone else to buy it. It may have been a myth that published authors were making money out of writing, but the illusion left the word ‘writer’ meaning at least something. If the cosy settlement that existed for a while between copyright law and the printing press was ‘just a blip’, as Neil Gaiman suggests, if the prospects for making a living out of storytelling are as bleak as the surveys report, then we can’t expect to reserve the term ‘writer’ for authors who have found commercial success.
“Maybe we should just admit defeat. Maybe the digital revolution has simply revealed the tensions in a concept that exploded into meaninglessness long ago. Maybe we should abandon the idea of a class of people who are different, a class of people who are ‘writers’, and just get on with the glorious, messy business of reading and writing.”
Does digital publishing mean the death of the author? : Richard Lea, 23 January 2014, The Guardian online, books section

"Do you miss being a bookseller?"

filed under , 20 February 2014, 20:56 by

“Do you miss being a bookseller?”

I miss the books. I miss the stacks and stacks of new books, the bookcases, the odd-and-original finds that can only happen when you’re surrounded by 50,000 titles and even though you’ve worked there for years you still haven’t quite seen everything yet.

I miss my co-workers: booksellers are the most interesting people. Some of them are so introverted you have to practically corner them to get a conversation started; others are so extroverted you can’t get them to shut up. But they all have something to say, something to add, and they all read books.

On rare occasions, I miss the customers.

But do I miss the business of bookselling? Hell no.


Ah. One other thing I miss is the income. And searching for a job in this economy is still rather difficult.

[if you have any leads, please drop something in my email inbox.]

← previous posts          

Yes, all the links are broken.

On June 1, 2015 (after 6 years and 11 months) I needed to relaunch/restart this blog, or at least rekindle my interest in maintaining and updating it.

Rather than delete and discard the whole thing, I instead moved the blog -- database, cms, files, archives, and all -- to this subdomain. When you encounter broken links (and you will encounter broken links) just change the URL in the address bar from to

I know this is inconvenient, and for that I apologise. In addition to breaking tens of thousands of links, this also adversely affects the blog visibility on search engines -- but that, I'm willing to live with. Between the Wayback Machine at and my own half-hearted preservation efforts (which you are currently reading) I feel nothing has been lost, though you may have to dig a bit harder for it.

As always, thank you for reading. Writing version 1.0 of Rocket Bomber was a blast. For those that would like to follow me on the 2.0 - I'll see you back on the main site.



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